Our church in Slidell, Louisiana, had a Christmas tree sale every year to benefit the youth group. In 1980 (I had just turned 11), our trees came from Washington state, and they were covered in ash from the Mount St. Helens eruption. They came off the trucks grey and smelling of smoke, and from a distance they almost looked as if they had been dusted with snow.
For southern Louisiana, it was very cold. Trees were stacked everywhere, and the only lights were bare bulbs strung on wire. There was, of all things, a gigantic cauldron full of what I remember as vegatable soup, though in retrospect I wonder. Wouldn’t hot chocolate have been more likely? Maybe I’m confusing it with the stew, also in white styrofoam cups, that I ate at the powwow on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Anyhow, my dad let me wear his stocking cap because my head was cold. I was supposed to help sell trees, but my method of “selling” involved asking whether someone needed help and, if the answer was yes, bolting for an adult. Mostly I prowled around in the dark, smelling the gorgeous, wide-awake mixture of pine and ash, watching the way that shadow could deepen into further shadow in the back corners, sipping soup when I got cold or just standing with my hands stretched over the cauldron, smelling it. Christmas music played in the background, and a couple of times I crouched down behind a tree and watched my dad without his knowing.
The car coat he was wearing is one that he got when he was in high school: navy blue wool, with a bright red fake-fur lining that zips out and eight or so pockets. When I moved to Chicago, he let me take it with me, and it was my coat for the very coldest days. I wore it for years and years, and it still looks good, even though it’s 40+ years old. When I sent it back to him, in 1998 or so, I put a love note in every pocket. He finally found the first one in 2003 and riffled through the pockets to find the rest of them. He was sniffling when he called to thank me. Now I have it again, with one of the notes still in a pocket.
My dad was a born salesman. He could talk to anyone, and he was a wonderful listener. He would stand with the tree shoppers and ask how big their room was, how long they’d leave it up, whether they had small children who’d get scratched by the poking kind of trees. They would feel needles and shake branches. He’d pull out trees and twirl them around and around to make sure there were no bare spots. He would spend as much time as was necessary to ensure that people bought the right tree for them.
I love my father. I miss him every minute.